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Julia Gillard, Western Sydney and the Art of the Stunt

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is heading to western Sydney. From Sunday Julia Gillard will spend almost a week in Rooty Hill, an area of western Sydney frequented by politicians, particularly during recent election campaigns. Ms Gillard will temporarily relocate to the area from the Prime Minister’s residence in Kirribilli where the aim will be to try to reach out to some of Australia’s most important voters. The move is one of the most obvious examples of a stunt that you could find. But not only that, the mini campaign smacks of desperation and the timing of the visit is incredibly poor.

The poll numbers are bad for the Australian Labor Party and even the Prime Minister’s political stocks are falling against a more positive Opposition Leader in Tony Abbott. The latest Newspoll has the ALP two-party preferred numbers at 55% to 45% in the Coalition’s favour. But it gets worse for the government, because that poll also suggests that 80% of voters have already firmly made up their minds. It would be a brave punter backing a Labor victory at the September 14 poll.

Desperate times have certainly resulted in a desperate measure when it comes to Julia Gillard’s little sojourn to the western part of Australia’s biggest city. Nothing looks more desperate than the most senior government MP spending a week in an electorally important area at any stage in the electoral cycle, let alone this far out from the poll.

The announcement of Ms Gillard’s intentions could not have come at a worse time. Just a matter of weeks ago, the PM nominated a firm date for the 2013 election. During that speech at the National Press Club, the Prime Minister remarked that her decision to call the election this early would clearly lead to a differentiation between the days where the government would be engaging in the task of governing the country and those days where it would be campaigning for re-election. Well, it is now clear that mantra has been thrown out. Next week will be a week of campaigning on the part of the Prime Minister.

Let’s be honest though – regardless of Julia Gillard’s words, we were still going to be in campaign mode. In fact, we have been in campaign mode since day one of the 43rd parliament. Most of that campaigning has been coming from the opposition, but nonetheless, the naming of the election date will only give rise to more feverish campaigning, particularly on the Labor side of politics. Both the Liberal and National Parties will continue to campaign, as they have now for over two years.

Julia Gillard’s sudden immense interest in western Sydney, if not an act of abject desperation, is a stunt. Well actually, it’s almost certainly both an act of desperation as well as a stunt, a public relations exercise – call it what you will. That is a pretty lethal combination.

It is true that all politicians engage in stunts. Politicians often take part in stunts on a daily basis. Even press conferences can be little more than stunts from time to time. The hard-hat however seems to be the prop of choice for political stunts, albeit a necessary one – most of the time.

Voters are generally very cynical about even the most tame of stunts engaged in by our elected representatives. Most of us wish they were not a feature of politics, but they are an unfortunate but necessary reality. They are aimed at the less politically attuned. Political displays are used as a subliminal tool to try to convince the unwary voter of the bona fides’ of politicians.

A stunt should look more natural to even the most discerning voter. Political grandstanding is always going to look a little ugly to the clued up elector. Subtlety is the key to faux displays of political action.  There is nothing subtle about the Prime Minister spending five days in an area across town from her residence, when we know how important western Sydney is.

A very helpful point was made on The Drum tonight. One of the guests remarked that it was odd of the PM to decide to stay in western Sydney rather than make the daily commute. The argument was that the daily drive would have shown just how difficult it is to commute between the city and the suburbs. And that is true. Infrastructure and overcrowding is a big issue in Sydney, and increasingly so in the west of the harbour city.

Some very dodgy and panicked choices have been made by the Prime Minister and Labor and they have all been painfully obvious to the electorate. A more subtle approach to western Sydney would have been appropriate, though as it is – the little campaign on the other side of town will matter very little in the bigger picture.

A Gradually Building Election Campaign

The Leader of the Opposition has launched the Coalition’s so-called “mini campaign”, the setting being the outer western suburbs of Sydney. That western Sydney is the focal point so early in an election year should come as no surprise given just how crucial the area is in any election. A mix of polls have shown that the Liberal Party could pick up a number of seats in the area. Lindsay, McMahon, Barton, Reid, Parramatta, Greenway, Watson, Werriwa, Fowler and Banks are all in play for the Coalition according to internal Labor polling from November last year.

The new year in politics has already been conducted at a frenetic pace. Amid natural disasters, we’ve already had a number of issues play out. But it is the election that matters. The election is due any time from August onward, but the tactical moves and campaigning, sound or otherwise, have started early. That’s what we have come to expect from Australian politics.

Looking at the mini campaign itself has the right move been made tactically? And in terms of the election campaign as a whole, what are the political realities and what is required from the opposition now, and as the election day hurtles toward us?

In an election year, it’s too early even for a short, but clearly forensic and politically calculated bombardment of electorates. The week ahead is clearly about trying to reverse the negative perceptions of Tony Abbott. That is fine, but it is too early for a political blitzkrieg. It gives off the wrong vibes. A short burst of campaigning is usually something associated with the final days of a campaign, especially when there is a late surge required.

Instead, what should be favoured is, at the present time, a similar yet different campaign method to the one deployed almost from the 22nd of August in 2010, the day after the surprise election result. What should be similar is the constant campaigning. However, it should be different in that it must have less of a campaign feel about it. The campaign should be much more muted – campaign fatigue has well and truly set in.

This short burst of election campaigning too, because of how early in the year it is, must be more about Tony Abbott listening to the concerns of voters than preaching to them. Yes, broad themes must be sold, but now is still a time for Tony Abbott to lend his ear to the voters of Australia rather than chew it off. Both leaders have been doing a lot of the latter.

From a public relations perspective, it might well have been better too, if the term ‘mini campaign’ was jettisoned. To have rephrased it as a listening tour would have been better, though in politics, both have negative connotations.

In the prism of the broader campaign, there have been complaints, as their has been throughout Mr Abbott’s leadership, that he has not released much policy. In any case it is still too early to release a broad range of fully-costed policies. But there must be a drip feed of policies and the refinement or jettisoning of existing ones – think paid maternity leave.

There is another reason why complaints about dearth of policy should not hold much weight. Because of the nature of the budget, a campaign lacking in major policy commitments, other than pre-existing ones, is a political reality. So the Opposition Leader can be forgiven in that sense too. The election will be one where a measure of austerity is the norm, even though Labor have been trying to frame it as otherwise in order to try to dent Coalition prospects.

The campaign will continue to evolve over the coming months. It will be testy and it will be tough. You can expect that there will be further campaign fatigue suffered by the community and that’s why the mini campaign and the early part of this year needs to involve more listening to the voter than speaking at them. It needs to build gradually.

And ultimately, because of the fiscal situation, there won’t be much in the way of substantive argument dominating the political discourse.

The A-League Cough is Developing Into a Potentially Deadly Flu

Soccer in Australia, or football as the purists call it has had its ups and downs over the decades in the Australian sporting landscape, with competitions coming and going, being reformed and re-badged into different competitions but ostensibly returning with franchises from the same main cities in each reincarnation albeit with a club or three or more added here and there. We have ended up now with the present A-League, a competition of 10 teams this current season, now heading for the grand final qualifiers.

But alas, what should be the kind of happy and celebrated last weeks of the A-League season have been thrown into chaos, first by the removal of the Gold Coast United license for next season just months ago, a franchise owned by billionaire Clive Palmer who, towards the end of the road did not see eye-to-eye with Frank Lowy, Ben Buckley and the FFA.

What has occurred today however, has turned the cold that the A-League was suffering from into a flu. Today, the FFA learned from the owners of the Newcastle Jets franchise that they can expect to have the license for theclub lobbed back at them after an unexpected announcement that nobody saw coming.

FFA boss Ben Buckley responded saying that the Jets are contracted to participate in the competition until the 2020 season but what are they going to do with a team in their main competition who has an administration that does not wish to be there? The players might be keen, but why would an administration pump resources into maintaining a team in a competition they do not believe in?

Far from that, this latest major hiccup proves that there must be something sick within the FFA organisation itself, now with two clubs that have had major grievances  with the governing body of the sport in Australia.

Club grievances with the umbrella organisation are not the only problem that the A-League and FFA face. In the wake of the unceremonious exit of Gold Coast United from the competition, the FFA decided, weeks later to award a franchise for a western Sydney club to fill the Gold Coast void from next season.

Ben Buckley and the FFA have said that the concept of a western Sydney team had been worked on for some time and obviously when the events in Queensland with the Gold Coast team an opening was seen and the FFA jumped swiftly to plug that gap with a team from the west of Sydney.

But this western Sydney team will have a matter of months to form a coherent team and a strong administration to even go close to competing in the 2012-13 season. Such a quick turnaround will be a challenge for the team and it will need some time to attract marquee and other players. If the Newcastle Jets exit goes ahead, the new side will not be short of top talent to try to tempt from going overseas, though the higher prices many may attract in Europe and Asia would likely prove insurmountable for a club that has to rush to attract sponsor’s money before they can even think of how much to purchase any player for.

The A-League are also the last of the football codes, aside from rugby union to venture into western Sydney, with the NRL having long been part of the sporting community, from junior rugby league clubs to senior teams like the now Wests Tigers and Penrith Panthers. Consequently, the new franchise may struggle for crowds as they attempt to grow crowds in an already very competitive western Sydney sports market which now has a team playing in the AFL, albeit not well.

The A-League and FFA certainly have some lessons to learn and must begin to throw caution to the wind. They must begin looking at how the league can evolve gradually, without making bold moves in a competition that needs  to endure where previous top-tier competitions in the same sport have repeatedly failed. But the cough is certainly a dangerous flu and the governing body either needs some strong antibiotics or “hospitalisation” to keep damages from recent events to a small part of the FFA body.

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